By Margaret Sullivan

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of American School & University under the title “Working Together”

Library study rooms like private offices are wilting. They are not quite dead; they are just having a difficult time sustaining themselves in a world of mass collaboration hungry for place to work together. An open floor plan with the right furniture can create flexible and easily accessible collaboration spaces that work.

Desks Arrangement - 1A tremendous amount has been written about designing space for learning organizations and how space can impact organizational behavior in business. Corporate environments and its furniture have adapted to complement these evolving working relationships. Now, it is time to accelerate the discussions and tackle the changes needed in school and university environments as well.

24/7 Collaborative Space

Students need space to gather, share ideas, talk, develop common understanding and work to create greater knowledge. This focus on collaboration has put a strain on group study spaces. Students need to collaborate spontaneously. Students find scheduling time in a study room is not conducive to spur-of-the-moment collaboration. In schools or on campuses the availability of safe, flexible yet comfortable spaces for group work is limited and lacks accessibility.

And it is not just an issue for students; it is also an issue for faculty and teachers. There is a growing demand for collaboration between teachers including librarians to share experience, expertise and curriculum development to meet the rigorous demands of new learning standards. Instructors are also looking for informal space to work with their students.

New learning standards require students to perform higher levels of research and problem solving, use multimedia tools and diverse reference resources, and build new knowledge as individuals and as collaborators on teams. Yet space to initiate these activities is quite limited. When new space ideas are developed the results are outstanding, such as the projects described in the book “Learning Spaces” edited by Diana G. Oblinger. The book illustrates campus projects which foster learning whether it is in rethinking corridors, learning studios, housing spaces or libraries.

Some of the furniture needed to create these collaborative spaces is readily available. It is easy to divide up a large open space with mobile boards or screens, low shelving, temporary storage or simply just open space keeps the area extremely flexible and easy to modify as educational requirements change.

New materials like acrylic resin or textured glass are creating contemporary design options for defining space in a more permanent way while enhancing the play of light and texture into an area. Curved or partial walls made of textured resin have the ability to add both shape and a sense of fluidity to space. These spaces are highly visible yet provide a group of people a clear location to meet.

Furniture Versus Small Rooms

Floor-to-ceiling walls are not flexible, easily moved or always safe. Study rooms are scheduled continually, making them harder to clean, empty trash or wipe off tables. And once the door or blinds are closed sight lines no longer exist, requiring staff or security to patrol the area. Another frequent complaint about study rooms is noise; a closed room is rarely soundproof, yet students become louder when using these rooms.

Enclosed rooms seem ideal for multimedia presentation projects. A room with projection equipment, flat screen monitors, sound or video equipment, speakers, and other presentation equipment probably should be reserved. However, there are now new furniture options for managing these types of presentation spaces as well.

Desks Arrangement - 2

A new development in booth seating uses 5 to 6 foot high backs on lounge seating combined with small, powered conference tables. These contemporary seating options are a much sleeker version of traditional booths and can be used to break up open spaces as well. Elaborate versions come with presentation options built in, providing plug-in features for laptops or tablets to connect to a monitor secured to a panel.

Collaboration areas can be designed by using contemporary furniture. A simple first step is to eliminate a significant number of single study carrels and replace them with two- or three-person workstations with task chairs. Isolated, study carrels buried in library stacks have poor lighting, usually lack power outlets and come equipped with an uncomfortable, wooden chair. Today’s students want something different.

Something Different for Today’s Students

A wonderful new concept is the office bench systems which provide an open, flat work surface with low divider screens between facing workers. Usually a transparent, 12 inch high screen can offer a visual break to minimize eye contact. The flat surfaces are designed to accommodate a run of individuals or several teams working beside each other. The long work surface can also be divided by incorporating storage modules. Couple the work surfaces with adjacent, break away lounge seating for comfortable discussions, and a collaborative environment is created.

These new bench configurations are coming into offices and replacing cubicles and panel walls. They are more conducive to collaboration, save valuable space, and frequently are not assigned. Individuals simply come in, sit down, plug in and go to work. Other enhancements can include mobile white boards or café tables and chairs for brainstorming and social interaction. It fosters behavior exactly like what is being encouraged in schools and universities.

Large tables positioned at coffee-table heights are another positive way to create comfortable collaborative spaces. These large tables mixed with lounge or executive-style task chairs invite groups to sit down, spread out their material and launch a discussion. Comfortable, task or lounge seating on casters is a must in these collaborative spaces. The ability to easily move your chair into a collaborative meeting is critical.

A great way to capture underutilized floor space is to incorporate one of a wealth of the new backless, modular bench or ottoman concepts available. These units come on beam legs or with traditional feet. Seating options include fabric, wood, metal, plastics or a mixture of several. They feature an endless selection of table and power options. They can be linked together to form complementary shapes to define space, and are an excellent way to leverage hallways, atriums, or entry ways for spontaneous teamwork.

Power options are integrated into every one of these furniture concepts mentioned above. Laptops and handheld devices have facilitated our ability to work anywhere with anyone. Providing students with easy access to power is a critical component to moving people out of study rooms where wall outlets are usually plentiful. Bringing power and docking devices to the students at a reasonable cost is a key consideration in the design of future school and university furniture.

Another way to view the design requirements of new furniture is to ask if it is user-centered. School and university users want and need to easily integrate technology into their work and study behavior. This question is being aggressively addressed in business environments. Using many of these contract solutions, it is also reaching newly built or renovated university spaces. It is in the K-12 area where very few manufacturers have accepted the challenge to introduce change.

A Nation Learning to Collaborate

“…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” Peter M. Senge, 1990.

We are becoming a nation learning to collaborate in order to construct more powerful, creative solutions. Senge was writing about business, but his writings apply equally to educational environments. Environments should nurture learning, provide sensory stimulation and be flexible enough to complement any learning model.

Resources:

Oblinger, Diana G., ed. Learning Spaces. Washington DC: Educause, 2006. Print
Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday, 1990. 3. Print.

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